River Dad – A Very Manly River Dad


The other day, I was waiting at the bus stop for my son to return home from first grade. This is a common event and one which I regularly share with two other parents at our stop, along with a third who makes an occasional appearance depending on her child’s schedule. My fellow bus stop mates are all women, and I like to think that they no longer view me, the neighborhood stay-at-home father, with suspicion. Mom #1 and I were chatting when Mom #2 walked up to join us. I immediately noticed to myself that Mom #2 was wearing a multi-colored belt that matched both her shirt and her pants, which were of different colors. Mom #1 also noticed this, and complimented Mom #2 on the outfit. For a moment, I felt a little smug, impressed that I’d actually noticed something fashionable on my own, without any hints or clues. And then I became horrified.

I’d actually noticed something fashionable on my own. Without any hints or clues.

What on earth was I doing paying any attention to women’s fashion choices? I’m a guy. We wear the same pair of blue jeans for a week straight and rotate between the sports-themed T-shirt and the shirt with the mildly inappropriate message. I do have a favorite piece of jewelry which is my mens sterling silver chain link necklace.  My roommates once had to convince me that I shouldn’t leave the apartment wearing stripes and plaid. I would be the perfect subject for TLC’s What Not To Wear if my wife didn’t buy most of my clothes and I had any hair for the show to cut off during the make-over. The only time I ever get rid of clothing is when my wife cleans out my dresser, and even then I generally don’t notice for a couple of months. Now suddenly I subconsciously pay attention to fashion?

Sure, it would have been easy to ignore my shocking bout of fashion sense, but then I realized that I’d spent a couple hours the day before baking lemon-poppyseed muffins for my daughter’s birthday. And I’d folded laundry while my muffins were in the oven.

What was happening to me?

I’ve been a stay-at-home father for a number of years, and I’ve always been wary of feeling, or becoming, emasculated. It was especially difficult when my youngest son was an infant and I spent my days changing diapers and going to Music Together classes where the teacher would be excited to have a baritone voice in the group. Through it all I stayed obsessed with baseball, went out to as many mindless action and sci-fi movies as possible, and still make sure to drink Coke Zero, not Diet Coke. Diet Coke is for women, Coke Zero is for men. It just is.

But had I lost the battle? Once the bus regurgitated my son, we walked back up the driveway and into the house. He got a snack, and I supervised his homework.  But all the while, I was taking a long, hard look at my situation.

Many men define themselves through their work. Well, I’m a writer. A freelance writer. I’m not exactly bringing home the bacon. The honor of being River Dad notwithstanding, it doesn’t pay our taxes, and Madison Avenue has yet to break down my door with an endorsement offer. (“I’m River Dad and I use Snowball Laundry Detergent because it gets out those tough, lemon-poppyseed muffin stains!”) And the fact that my wife is the main breadwinner in the family doesn’t add anything to my overall feeling of manliness. Don’t get me wrong, it totally works for us, and for her, but there’s still that caveman River Dad somewhere deep in my cerebral cortex that wags its finger at me and chastises me for not going out there and clubbing wooly mammoths to keep my family fed.

So if I don’t derive a sense of masculinity from my career, how about from my non-paying work? It is no secret that I am very active in our school district’s Elementary PTA- and while a critical and empowering responsibility, the PTA is not yet a bastion of masculinity. In my work with the EPTA, I attend many meetings in which I am the only man in the room. Besides my wife, these women are the people with whom I interact most frequently- they are my peers. I even trade amusing kid stories with them, though I tend to remain mute when the subject comes around to breast feeding and/or that time of the month.

I am told that some men find their masculinity in the company of other men. My brother-in-law has two lifelong male friends with whom he is in constant contact- my sister-in-law says they are ‘like teenage girls’. They still go on lost weekends together to Cooperstown or camping and text and call each other daily. I don’t really have a bromance. Most of my male friends are generally the husbands of my wife’s friends, or the fathers of my kids’ friends. My best male friend here in New York is a great guy and we go to a lot of movies and concerts together. But, then, he works for a major non-profit organization that, in his words, is “70% women.” In fact, before it was in every bookstore and on the cover of every magazine, he confided in me that he’d felt pressured at work to read a copy of Fifty Shades of Grey just so he would know what everyone in his office was talking about. He kind of liked the book. Is it a coincidence?  Or, perhaps the fact that so many of my friends are more like me means that the definition of what makes a man is actually changing.

But even as my introspection was taking a positive turn, I was still wondering if my Y chromosome had truly taken a holiday to grab a spa bath and facial. So I continued to analyze what makes a man a man today. Besides, you know, the obvious. Looking in the mirror, I saw a father who is lucky to be so involved in his children’s lives, and who knows their friends’ names. That seems pretty manly. I support my wife in her work and do what I can to keep the kids safe. Yes, I baked muffins for my daughter’s class, but my baking them meant my wife didn’t have to race home early and make them herself, so that was a nice thing that I did for her.  That’s manly.   I’m an involved citizen working to improve our community. I think all that’s pretty manly, too.  And of course my Fifty Shades of Grey-reading friend and I still go to a lot of mindless action films.

So I’m neither the beer-guzzling frat boy parked in front of the TV on Sundays during football season nor the high-powered lobbyist pulling down seven figures in between games of golf, but I would probably never be either of those things.  I’m the sci-fi and Muppets-loving, children’s advocate, bread-baking writer. It’s just progress.

So if I noticed that a neighbor’s belt matched her shirt and pants, maybe it’s just a sign that all my wife’s fashion advice has slowly started to sink in after all this time, which is also progress.

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About the Author: David Neilsen